Sermon for Easter 7 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Did you know that there are—at least according to the World Christian Encyclopedia—38,000 distinct Christian denominations in the world. It’s a staggering number, but having previously served in a part of the country where there seem to be a thousand different baptist denominations alone, I’m not surprised. This sad division of the body of Christ seems to have been caused by various differences. Some are theological- for example, disagreements about whether or not Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. Others are about church polity- whether bishops ought to be in charge, or a college of presbyters, or individual congregations. Other divisions seem simply to arise from one church leader disliking another.

In all events, the situation in which we find ourselves seems so unhappily in contradiction to Christ’s last prayer, his final request before his suffering and death, which we heard in this morning’s Gospel:

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one

I would humbly suggest that Christ’s prayer went beyond sentiment. That the unity, the one-ness, to which we as the body of Christ are called, is not about some vague, half-hearted acknowledgement of each other’s existence. You’ve heard that hand-waving excuse from people, you’ve said it yourself, and I might have even said it once or twice: “Well, different strokes for different folks, we’re all praying to the same God, and all that.” I’ve increasingly come to believe that this is an excuse. We are excusing ourselves from what is a horrible sin perpetrated through the centuries: the breaking of Christ’s body.

And the really sad thing is not that we happen to go to different buildings on a Sunday morning. The really sad thing is that our divisions impair our witness. Later in the chapter from which we just heard, Jesus says the following:

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

Church unity is not an end in itself, but a means by which others are brought into the fold. In a world of political and cultural division, the unity of Christ’s Church could be a powerful sign of the Gospel’s reconciling power. We’ve done pretty well at welcoming people of other Christian backgrounds into our parish, people who are curious about the way Episcopalians practice the faith. This is a good thing. But how many once totally uninterested people have come and said, let me check out this Christianity thing? Some, certainly, but not as many, and I think that part of the reason is because divisions in the church are a scandal. The Gospel is compelling, but if we’re not living it, nobody will know that it is.

All of this can seem awfully discouraging. There appears to be little for us to do individually, as real, tangible church unity is a matter discussed at higher levels than ours, among popes and bishops and officials of various churches. The terms of such conversations revolve around weighty debates about what is essential to Christianity and what is not, issues which seems intractable. We can be charitable about the choices friends and loved ones may have made about being a part other churches, but the larger issues of church unity seem to be outside our sphere of influence.

Even when the opportunity arises for larger agreements between different flavors of Christianity we can recognize that the call for unity (not just intentional but institutional) can be complicated and that setting aside genuine disagreements in order to feel better about our openness can end up looking a lot like cheap grace.

Take the latest ecumenical proposal which will come before our church’s General Convention next year. A joint commission of of Episcopal and United Methodist leaders have drafted a full communion agreement similar to that which exists between our church and the Lutherans and (you might not have known) the Moravians.

Now, fun fact, Anglicans everywhere, all eighty million of us, are bound by a document called the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral when engaging in ecumenical dialgoue leading to such full-communion relationships. The Quadrilateral provides, as one might expect, four points which are understood as so essential that they must be present before institutional unity of any significance can be established. These sticking points are (1) the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary to salvation, (2) the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds as sufficient statements of the faith, (3) the Dominical Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and (4) the “historic episcopate locally adapted”, the definition of which is always controversial, having to do with the ministry of bishops in apostolic succession as leaders of the church.

So here we have a summary of what our church reckons as essential for “church unity” to actually be something meaningful. It’s a definition of which leaves out plenty that you or I might find somewhat important- I think there are five more sacraments and about a dozen more books in the bible than the quadrilateral requires, but I don’t think they should be reckoned essential.

When the deal with the Methodists gets debated by our General Convention and their General Conference, I guarantee people are going to focus on things like our different positions on gay marriage or whether Welch’s is valid matter for Communion, and I understand that, but I don’t think one’s position on those issues has a lot to do with whether little “c” churches are fully within the capital “C” church.

The rule, falsely attributed to Augustine but important nonetheless, holds- “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” With regard to the current ecumenical proposal, I honestly know neither how a Methodist view of “that which is essential” differs from ours nor the degree to which each point of our quadrilateral is satisfied (though I suspect the most delicate discussions will have to do with how the historic episcopate is or isn’t embodied in Methodist polity, and I pray that this is approached with sensitivity as well as thoroughness). I remain cautiously optimistic that our churches will each focus the discussion around what is deemed essential and that some progress might be made in our perrenial attempt to reëstablish the unity Christ intended for his body.

Granted, most of us don’t have an active role in making those decisions for the church. Even so, there is one thing we can do, and which I myself need to do, as difficult as it sometimes is. We need a change of heart. We can say “we’re all in the same business” a thousand times without really believing it. I can state my own appreciation of the work of other churches until I’m out of breath, while still secretly seeing those other churches as “the competition”. We can in one moment give lip service to ecumenism, and in the next moment be snide about how weird and out of touch those “other Christians” seem to be. I’m frequently guilty of this.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that Christ’s prayer for unity was not about being politique or delicate with those with whom we think we have so little in common. Christ’s prayer for unity has its basis in genuine love:

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Through our love of Jesus we come to love one another, even those whose religion seems to us strange or over-the-top. Again, none of us is in a position to effect the institutional unity of the church to a great degree, but we all have a part to play in bringing about its unity in love. Ultimately, that sort of unity is a necessary precursor to the other. Unless we truly love our brothers and sisters, unless we have that invisible bond of unity, visible unity can never exist. Far from being a matter for only the highest levels of church leadership, church unity must begin with each of us, setting aside our discomfort, and “living in love as Christ loved us.” This is easier said than done, but it is our charge. May we be given the charity to accomplish it.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for 5 Easter 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

At the end of this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus says something which, if we were to really think about it, is rather hard to swallow:

Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.

We’ve heard this a hundred times, and if we approach it uncritically (as we are so often wont to do) it’s a very comforting thought.

If, however, we were to pause a moment and consider this promise for what it seems to suggest, I think we’d quickly become troubled, because the fact is, it doesn’t seem to ring true with our experience. To put it more bluntly, it might seem to us that either Jesus is lying or he is powerless to keep his promise.

Most of us are taught from a young age how to pray. We are instructed to address God the Father and to pray “in Jesus’ name”. If it’s all about mechanics—about using the correct words—then, indeed, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel must be false. But the words “in Jesus’ name” do not constitute a magic formula, the unthinking repetition of which ensures that we get whatever we want. We may pray “in Jesus’ name” to win the lottery but, (perhaps it’s just my own lack of faith) it rarely seems to happen. That’s a bad example, because I’ve never purchased a lottery ticket, so let’s take a different example. We may make less overtly selfish prayers, tack “in Jesus’ name. Amen.” to the end of it, and still not see the prayer answered. We can pray for world peace or an end to hunger or for a loved one’s recovery from illness or for an enemy to have a change of heart (prayers I know I’ve made and which do not require the purchase of a lottery ticket to prove my good will in praying for it), and too often be left disappointed.

We’ve all heard the rather easy explanation that “God answers prayers, but sometimes it’s with a ‘no’” but look back at what Jesus promises: if you ask anything in my name, I will do it. He doesn’t say he’ll provide an answer one way or the other, but that he will answer our prayers by giving us what we ask.

So, how do we approach this genuine theological problem. We must, I contend, stand firm on the assertion that Jesus is not a liar, nor is God powerless to keep His promise. The answer, I think, comes from a more fulsome understanding of what it means to pray “in Jesus’ name” in the first place.

We know that these words are not a magic formula. There is, of course, nothing wrong with structuring our prayers the way we do, but perhaps praying “in Jesus’ name” is partly positive and partly normative. That is to say, first of all, that we do express a reality when we pray “in Jesus’ name”. We are, as baptized Christians, the body of Christ, and when we pray “in Jesus’ name” we affirm that reality. But at the same time, we can never as individuals honestly affirm that our will is perfectly conformed to our Lord’s, that we are fully capable of standing in the place of him who died for us and rose again, and so when we pray “in Jesus’ name” we are also referring to an ideal to which we strive but will never reach in this life.

That being the case, we may not be praying “in Jesus’ name” in a very important sense just because we tack a few extra words onto the end of our prayers. We may not fully know the will of God, and the intentions with which we pray may not perfectly conform to God’s intentions.

All of this can be discouraging, but it is not meant to suggest that all our prayers are in vain. What it does mean is that there is an extra task each of us has when we are praying. We don’t just ask for stuff we want or favors we want God to bestow on others, but for our wills to be conformed to Christ’s, that we may know how to pray aright, to, as one collect in the prayerbook puts it “ask only what accords with thy will”.

When we pray without considering this necessary element of prayer, we run the risk of taking the name of Jesus in vain. Far worse than letting some swear slip is the pride which makes us think that we can use the blessed name of Jesus for selfish gain, not considering how great a privilege and a responsibility it is that we are permitted to pray in Jesus’ name to begin with.

Sometimes Christ’s will is that our prayers slowly make us more and more like him until they bear fruit in what we had asked for in the beginning. The best example of this I can think of, particularly on Mother’s Day, is that of Saint Monica, Augustine’s mother, whose prayers for her son’s conversion took years to come to fruition but which, in the meantime, made Monica herself a more loving and patient mother, a more Christ-like mother.

In the final analysis, it all goes back to trust: trust that God’s will is to save his people, to bring them to the Father’s house in which there are many rooms. When we trust that God’s will is for the good, it becomes more natural for us to conform our will to his and to accept what we experience as setbacks or unanswered prayers as mysterious means for God’s plan to unfold. When we have faith that God will set all things to rights for his people, we can begin to pray more fervently and to see how he graciously answers us. There will always be disappointments, there will always be prayers which seem unanswered, but, as in every relationship, a foundation of trust will help us to maintain our hope that even in our own darkness God’s light can shine and will ultimately illuminate all our experiences, showing us how God was working his purposes out all along.

Let us pray.
Almighty God, unto whom our needs are known before we ask: Help us to ask only what accords with thy will; and those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask, grant us for the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon for 3 Easter 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Most of us, I suspect remember the story, and have heard a number of reflections on its significance over the years. What has begun to fascinate me only recently about the story, though, is the disciples’ lack of recognition up to the point of the meal they shared in Emmaus. We so often call the events we just heard about as “the road to Emmaus”, but we forget that the moment that made all the difference for Cleopas and the other disciple didn’t take place on the road at all, but at the dinner table.

So what about that long walk they all took together? Our risen Lord was engaging in a ministry that defined his earthly life just as much as breaking bread with his disciples; he was teaching the meaning of scripture, how the Law and the Prophets pointed to the coming reign of the Messiah. Later, the disciples would acknowledge that they felt their hearts “burning within” them during this conversation, yet the moment of recognition didn’t come until that more intimate act at dinner.

Perhaps the disciples’ delayed discovery surprises us, but it shouldn’t. We are exposed to compelling arguments and weighty evidence of some truth or another all the time, but without some kind of personal experience, the truth sometimes doesn’t sink in. We can hear facts and figures about poverty and injustice, but our hearts are rarely moved if we don’t see it. We live in a society in which a large proportion of people can hear compelling arguments about some scientific or medical proposition, but refuse to believe the validity of said arguments until they see it first hand (even if the proposition at hand doesn’t lend itself to that kind of scrutiny). So, I’m not suggesting that our difficulty in accepting truths on the basis of persuasive evidence is a good thing, but rather that it’s a reality of our condition. We are now—as post-modern people—more skeptical creatures than we’ve ever been (with regard to science and religion and politics and every other human endeavor), and that’s neither an altogether bad nor an altogether good thing.

That being the reality, we can learn a great deal from the disciples’ delayed recognition. If, as I would contend, we are even more prone to withhold judgment than people in Jesus’ day, that effects how we go about evangelism.
Now, there is a word we Episcopalians can be uncomfortable with—evangelism—and I think our discomfort is of precisely the same nature which causes others to be uncomfortable with the propagation of very different kinds of truth. Our discomfort may well stem from the very same post-modern rejection with absolute truth and the (to my mind) completely incoherent claim that what might be true for one need not be true for another.

If we truly believe that Christ is risen, we believe something stronger than the claim that “for me Christ is risen, but perhaps not to somebody who rejects my meta-narrative”. We believe Christ is risen. We’re making a claim which believe to be as true as “gravity exists” or “the earth orbits round the sun”. We’re not just using code language to point to some personal feeling. We’re making a claim about the truth of a fact, a fact which is not cotenable with every other religious claim everyone else in the world may make. So important is this truth, so potentially life-changing and world-changing is this truth, that we should find it to be a truth whose universal acceptance would be a positive thing.

Our discomfort with this suggestion cripples our witness. A friend of mine once said that Episcopalian evangelism is like building the most beautiful, well-appointed boat ever constructed, taking it out into the middle of the ocean, and waiting for the fish to jump in. Needless to say, you’ll not catch many fish that way, but sadly I think the analogy rings truer than we’d like to admit.

But, considering the fact that the people we live among are more like those disciples on the road than we might have thought—considering the fact that we now have a couple generations of people who might not have read Heidegger or Derrida or Foucault, but who nonetheless share their rejection of modern logic and argumentation—our approach must be different, and Jesus is once again the model.

We’ll not convince many people that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” by setting forth propositional arguments. We may, however, help others see the risen Christ when we break bread with them. The good news of the Resurrection is not limited to what it means for us who have been baptized on the last day. The Resurrection also means that we’ve already been risen with Christ, and we, the Church, constitute his earthly body. So, when we nurture the kinds of intimate relationships with others that are manifested most powerfully in Christ’s breaking of the bread, we open a window of insight into the Christ of whom we are a part. We permit those who do not yet believe to have the opportunity for the same recognition experienced by the disciples.

Our earthly relationships are ideally reflections of the primary relationship God has with us. This is why the marriage rite makes clear that the love shared between husband and wife is a sign of the love “betwixt” Christ and his Church. This is why parents are so intimately involved in the rite of Baptism (why, for example, I insist on having parents and godparents hold the child during the baptism rather than doing it myself: it’s not, contrary to some speculation, because I’m afraid of dropping an infant, but because parents and godparents will ideally serve as more important models of Christian love than some chap in funny dresses).

You see, our domestic community (that is, our household) as well as our ecclesial community (that is, our parish church) are primarily contexts in which we humans in very human ways try to reflect the love of God. In all events, we learn from this morning’s Gospel that the most compelling evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is not to be found in any scientific inquiry, but rather in the love we show and are shown. May we be brought to daily conversion, to slowly turning ourselves back toward God when we experience the love His people show toward us, and may we break bread with others in the hopes that they, too, will catch a glimpse of the risen Christ.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the and Holy Spirit. Amen.